take all? Our electoral rules demand reform
By Rob Richie and Steven Hill
With Republicans controlling the White House and Congress,
Democrats' interest in the 2004 elections has soared, boosting their
voter registration and projected voter mobilization. They could well
edge Republicans in the popular vote in this November's elections
for the presidency and both houses of Congress.
There's just one problem for believers in fairness and
to the perversities of our electoral rules, that prospective sweep
prevent retention of Republican dominance. Our antiquated electoral
rules can deny majority rule in each of our major elections.
2000 election makes it easy to explain how this could happen in the
presidential race. George Bush was elected even though Al Gore won
more than a half million more popular votes nationally and even
though the combined popular vote for Gore and the Green nominee
Ralph Nader both in Florida and across the nation was more than 50
reason is two-fold. First we don't elect the president directly,
relying on that democratic dinosaur: the Electoral College. Four
our history we have had wrong-way winners, and it will happen again
if John Kerry increases his majorities in some big states like
California, Illinois and New York, but narrowly loses Ohio and
second problem with presidential elections is the use of plurality,
winner-take-all rules to allocate electors. George Bush didn't need
majority support to win all of Florida's electoral votes in 2000; he
just needed more votes than anyone else. With Ralph Nader once again
contesting battleground states, our plurality voting system again is
reared its ugly head. By allowing splits in the majority vote,
plurality voting can distort the will of the voters, a flaw that
states could have fixed by adopting instant runoff voting.
In the U.S. Senate, Republicans hold a slim 51-49 seat majority. But
competitive Senate races this year are in states that tilt toward
putting Democrats at an immediate disadvantage - a recurrent bias,
in fact, as Bush carried 60 percent of states in 2000 even while
losing the national vote. Given that Democrats should sweep Senate
races in big states like New York, Illinois and California this
year, they look guaranteed to win the overall popular vote in Senate
races, yet face an uphill battle to win 51 seats.
in the U.S. House also look daunting for Democrats. Their problem is
that they are live in more concentrated areas than Republican
That's why George Bush carried 47 more of today's congressional
districts than Al Gore in 2000. If a Gore clone and Bush clone had
run as House candidates in every district, Republicans would have
swept to a big congressional majority even while losing the national
Adding to Democrats' disadvantage is the stranglehold of incumbency
in House races. The House has changed control only once in the last
50 years, and more than 98 percent of incumbents have been
re-elected each year since 1996. Without a popular surge toward one
party, Democrats would need to effectively draw to an inside
straight to win control of the House.
In the wake of the bitterness of the 2000 elections, expect a far
post-election atmosphere if there is such a divide between votes and
Both parties will claim a mandate, and Democratic efforts to block
Republican initiatives will rise to new heights.
may have more incentives to look at reform in the short-term, but we
all lose if Americans lose faith in our democratic institutions -
what's unfair to one party today inevitably will hurt the other in
future. Better for us to take a nonpartisan look at these unfair
rules and consider proposals like full representation voting methods
for the House, instant runoff voting for president, abolition of the
College and a weaker role for the U.S. Senate.
If the major parties again fail to act, its time to push for a
independent presidential candidate to carry that reform message in
Political reform is a powerful message for swing voters - and the
message for those seeking a fair and accountable democracy.